The Fine Art of Thrifting

What Is Thrifting?

Why, thrifting is the act of shopping at thrift shops. Thrift shops, for those of you dialing in from another civilization, are stores that sell used clothing, housewares and other items that have been donated by people who no longer have a use for them. These items are sold at a modest markup and the profits go to whatever charitable organization runs the store. The donator gets closet space, the charity gets cash and the buyer gets unbelievably nifty stuff for next to nothing. Everybody wins.

Why Thrift Shops And Not Discount Stores?

Because discount stores sell cheap new stuff, and for that stuff to be cheap, it's usually made somewhere in the Far East under grim conditons. Well, not always, but you get the idea. Thrifts sell stuff cheap because they got it for free, and the money goes to good causes. Also, cheap new stuff is more likely to fall apart than cheap used stuff. Why? Because used clothes (for example) have already been worn, yanked, washed, dried and hung several times over, so all the seams that could possibly rip have been ripped and all the dyes that could possibly fade have faded. If it still looks good, it'll probably keep looking good well into the next few years.

What Can You Get At A Thrift Shop?

Clothes, of course. Also, scads and scads of coffee mugs, commemorative glasses and other discarded dishware. Furniture. Vinyl albums, 8-track tapes, Atari cartridges and other obsolete media. Really weird art in strange frames. All kinds of books. Old magazines. Filing cabinets. Jewelry. Naked Barbie dolls. Just about anything that somebody could have thrown away, but decided to donate instead in the hopes that someone else might have a use for it.

Where Can I Find Thrift Shops?

Look up "Thrift Shops" in the yellow pages of your local phone book. Or try driving around the cheaper parts of town--thrifts tend to move into places with low overhead. There's a shopping plaza here in Decatur, Georgia with two different thrift shops to choose from (Atlanta Union Mission and Amvets.) It's a great place to start off a day of thrifting.

How To Thrift

If this is your first time out, get directions. (This is what the handy number in the phone book is for.) If you know where you're going, figure out the best route from one place to the next. A good thrifting day can cover five or six stores, depending on how far you have to drive to get to the next one.

Tip: Never mix thrift shopping with regular shopping. Either the regular stores will look ridiculously pricy, or the thrift stores will look faded and sullen.

Tip: Sunday is a bad day to go thrifting, as a number of places will be closed. Saturday is ideal. Weekdays are okay, but the shops tend to be filled with the kind of people who have weekdays off.

When you arrive, give the place a quick once-over. If there's anything in particular you're looking for (a cheap decoratable dress for a costume, say, or a funky vase for your bathroom window) check for it in the appropriate section. If you're just there to see what there is to see, then, well, just look.

Shopping For Clothes:

Scan the racks as you walk up each aisle. Look for colors that interest you. Run your hands along the clothing racks. I've managed to find a number of silk shirts simply by touch. You can also detect spectacularly comfortable items of clothing this way--if it feels good to your fingers, it'll probably be just as nice to the rest of your body. If something catches your eye (or hand) have a closer look. Check the price tag, if there is one (see below.) Check for any obvious defects --stains, rips, etcetera. If you see any, decide if you can live with them or repair them. A friend of mine brought a leather jacket back from the dead by replacing the zipper and fixing some torn seams; it's served him nicely ever since. If you're not the handy type, keep looking until something else turns up. There are lots of clothes to choose from in a decent-sized thrift shop.

Tip: Thrift shops use two kinds of pricing. One is individual pricing (each item has a little tag with a price scribbled on it in grease pencil in the universal thrift shop handwriting) the other is straight pricing (all jackets, for example, are $3.50, no matter what the material or condition of the jacket is.) Straight pricing is great for nabbing incredibly neat stuff at cheap prices, individual pricing is best for picking up well-worn items for spare change. Places that price individually will usually mark things down over time, so if five bucks is a little bit much for that rayon paisley shirt, come back a week later and if someone else hasn't nabbed it, you may be able to pick it up for three-fifty. I've gotten a couple of pairs of black knit pants for ninety-nine cents, because I was the only human being who could fit into the things.

When thrifting, you should really settle for nothing less than love at first sight. If it is truly meant to be, it will fit and look good. If it doesn't quite work, put it back--there are plenty of other clothes out there.

Tip: Bring a second opinion. Thrifting is always more fun with more than one person--you can help each other find things, give an extra point of view on how things look and crow over amazing finds together. Ideally, you should bring people who are a different sex and/or a different size to avoid fighting over the same clothes. (My roomie and I have come precariously close to conflict over certain items that fit us both, but we have the "you can always borrow it" escape hatch to keep us from resorting to violence.)

If the place has changing rooms, you're golden. In other places, you'll be lucky to find a mirror. There are lots of ways around this.

Hold the shirt by the shoulder seams and place the seams against your shoulders. If they land somewhere along your collarbone, it's going to be a bit small. If they go past your shoulders and venture downwards towards your elbows, it's going to be a bit big. If it's a long sleeved shirt, hold the shoulder seam at one end and see where the cuff falls on your arm. Decide of it's close enough to your wrist for you to handle.

Jackets and vests:
Most of the shirt tests apply, but you can also try the things on over your clothes with a minimum of fuss.

Hold the waistband flat--don't stretch it--and lay it against your actual waist. If the two ends threaten to wrap around the back, it's going to be a bit loose, and if they barely cover the front, it's going to be a tight fit. Do crotch check to see where the crotch of the pants falls in relation to your actual crotch. (If the pants crotch lands above the actual, don't bother.) Hold one leg straight and see where the cuff lands as you still hold that waistband in place. If it goes past your foot and hits the floor, consider hemming.

About the same as for pants, only the crotch test doesn't apply, obviously, and you have much more latitude with where the hem lands.

Note: Thrift shop clothes aren't always going to be a perfect fit. Indeed, it's something of a bonus if they are. The real question is whether or not it's a fit you can live with. I'm personally rather fond of having a little room to move around in (being an Obnoxiously Skinny Person, most of my clothes tend to have some) but even I have held my breath to fit into things that were just too keen to pass up. I picked up a black velvet jacket with sleeves that are a twee short on my arms, but I pair it up with a frilly blouse with long and busy cuffs and no one notices. Remember--thrifting has very little to do with fashion and everything to do with style.

However, shoes do need to fit or your feet will hate you. Know thy size, and know what size you can lean towards. Feel free to slip off the shoes you have and try on shoes in thrift shops. Give these shoes the stand test, the walk test and the do-they-look-good-or-not test. Check the sole and heel for any major damage. Remember that heels can be repaired fairly cheaply at those little shoe-and-key places all over town. I'm not much of a shoe person, but I have obtained some fabulous, fabulous shoes at thrifts that have not given me a day of pain or trouble--which is more than I can say for some new shoes I've gotten elsewhere.

Shopping for Furniture

Unlike clothing, furniture isn't usually an impulse buy. People buy furniture for one of two reasons--they don't have it in the first place or they're sick of the furniture they have and want something new to stare at. If you belong to the latter category, you may just want to stop here--no sensible person throws out their old furniture to make room for somebody else's old furniture. However, if you've just moved and suddenly realize that you actually need your own couch, this is the place for you.

Before you go furniture shopping, you will need the following--

You can be all ultra-precise and use a measuring tape, or you can do it like royalty of old and measure things against your own body parts. If, say, you want some shelves to fit under your window and the windowsill hits at about your waist, don't buy any shelving that's higher than your waist (unless maybe you really want to obscure the view out of your window.)

Check for rips, tears, worn spots, stains and funny smells. Some things can be fixed with a little needle and thread, other things are just not worth it. Next, give it the bompf test. Sit down on it like you would usually sit on a couch in your own home. If you're like me, that involves just flopping down on it and going bompf. How does the couch react to this? Does it welcome you and hold you comfortably? Or does it get all stiff and offended and then try to make you sit up straight? Get the tallest of your strong friends to lie down on it, to see if this is a Couch That Can Be Slept On Comfortably, of if it's just a Couch That Can Be Napped On If You Don't Mind Bending Your Knees While Sleeping. Check under the cushions to see if there's a fold-out bed hidden beneath. If you have room, unfold it and give it the same once-over you gave the couch proper.

If the general color scheme matches whatever you've got going at your place, that's a bonus point in its favor. However, if you find a superbly comforable couch at a dirt cheap price because it's a frightening shade of grass green or something, remember that slipcovers and sheets can conceal a multitude of upholstery sins. I've even seen a rather grim looking vinyl couch be given a new lease on life with several colorful coats of paint applied to it.

As above, except the lying down tests obviously don't apply. But do check to see if it reclines.

Tables, Desks and Chairs To Go With Them.
Sit. Lean on the table (or desk). Check for wobbles. Decide if these wobbles are livable or repairable. Check for dents, nicks, scratches, gouges, cracks, carved initials and other flaws. Decide, as above, if and how to deal with them. A good coat of paint will cover a number of inperfections. So will a tablecloth.
Lean back in the chairs to make sure they'll hold you. Sit up straight. Slouch. Do whatever you usually do in a chair at a table (as long as it can be done in a public place.)
Lean your elbows on the table to see if it's the ideal height for your usual table dealings.
Fake writing at the desk to see if it's a comfortable level. Or fake typing, if that's what you plan to do. (Or you could even grab a typewriter off of the deceased office equipment shelves and give it a test drive that way, but that's a bit extreme and the people who work there will probably get annoyed with you.)

This page is still being written. All the contents are Copyright Sheila O'Shea. Thanks for stopping by!

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